“Most people in Sri Lanka don’t think about global domination,” says Sanjiva Weerawarana, the Founder, CEO and Chief Architect of WSO2. WSO2 is described as a software middleware company and its vision is to reinvent the way enterprise middleware is developed, sold, delivered and supported through an open source model.
As the speaker for this year’s IESL Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture, Weerawarana will be speaking on the topic ‘Nobody to Leader : Achieving Global Leadership with Software’. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Weerawarana highlighted several concerns regarding the IT sector, his views about the creativity of people and the innovative leadership of Ray Wijewardene.
Why were you interested in the IT field?
My interest in computing began when I got a Commodore 64 computer from my father. I studied computer science when I was an undergraduate as well. Although I wasn’t one of those hacker types, I was involved in doing programming languages and mathematics.
What role does WSO2 play in this sector?
WSO2 is a tool-maker and we don’t make applications. We are a software middleware company where basically most online transactions are done through WSO2 integrated software. So we sit in the middle and build tools that make it easy to build certain kinds of applications that involve integrating with other things.
How challenging was it to introduce this kind of a programme in Sri Lanka?
I lived in the US for 16 years and returned in 2001. When I returned I wanted to start a few open source projects in Sri Lanka. That was how Lanka Software Foundation (LSF) came into being. Through that we created a series of open source projects. The Apache Software Foundation for instance has a series of projects under Sanskrit names such as Sandesha, Kandula etc. which were done here by university students. Most of them were done as final year projects with the University of Moratuwa where I was teaching at the time. I had no intention of starting a company, but Sri Lanka became the number one technology builder for web services and other programmes between 2003 till 2005. There was no business activity and that led to WSO2 being created. The mind-set is not there among the younger crowd. All the people I started this company with were university graduates. We don’t spoon-feed people or give them training. There was a standard industry technology that everybody was using and the main objective for LSF was to make it 10 times faster and we did it. It involved creative thinking and using the right tools and so on. We do these kinds of tasks regularly.
You spoke about problem-solving and creativity. To what extent does the younger generation have an opportunity to put these skills in to use?
If you go and work in a company in Sri Lanka, the manager has to approve everything. Does that mean that he knows everything more than you? I don’t think so. But in WSO2 although I have some experience in the field, it doesn’t mean that I know all the answers. If somebody has a good idea we listen. We create an environment where people are empowered to take risks, create, fail, learn and keep going. But if you create an environment where none of these are possible then nobody will benefit. In most instances employees aren’t allowed to showcase their full potential. The objective should be to hire people smarter than you, but for that you need to be comfortable and be sure of what you’re doing.
We have the elderly population who aren’t that tech-savvy. How can they also be involved in this fast moving age of technology?
Many people in the 50-60 age group now have a mobile phone. The interesting thing about this smart phone and tablet phenomena is that it has changed the mind-sets of a lot of people. People don’t think of a smart phone as a computer. If someone on the street is given a computer to work with, they will have a fear for it. But we see how even two-year olds now use mobile phones because you can either swipe or tap and do all that. So it reacts the way you expect it to be. But with a computer you have to move the mouse to move the cursor around and then click the right button on it if you want to choose something and so on. That’s not natural.
We create an environment where people are empowered to take risks, create, fail, learn and keep going
It takes a lot more experience and instinct to learn and understand cyber security management
Cyber war is different because it isn’t the shape of the warrior that counts, but his ability to hack and type fast
Nobody needs training on how to use a smart phone. For me, the older generation may not understand technology that wasn’t meant for normal people to use. Smart phones, tablets and so forth aren’t that scary to use. Many people have a smart phone and if you take India for example, the price of smart phones is very cheap. In Sri Lanka if you reduce the minimum price of a smart phone everybody will have access to one and they will also be connected to the Internet.
There are many issues concerning cyber security, one being that of privacy. Could these issues be secured at any level?
Technological security exists, but the problem is humans. Most major hacks happened because somebody had a bad password or because somebody leaked a password. That’s what you call a phishing attack. People don’t understand how easy it is to fake websites and other cyber applications. There are solutions being researched on, but the weakest link is the people. In the end there is no proper solution to it.
Is Sri Lanka well equipped to battle with cyber-attacks?
The good thing is that Sri Lanka isn’t a digitally connected country unlike the US. If you hack in to the US, you can basically shut it down. Hence, we aren’t ready to deal with cyber-attacks and some don’t understand how important it is to harden a server. Although there aren’t that many systems which are fully digital, it’s getting there rapidly. People think they are getting educated in cyber security, but it’s deeply technical. It takes a lot more experience and instinct to learn and understand cyber security management and defence rather than doing normal programming. This is the same with India and US where they get hacked all the time. Cyber security is just one aspect, but we also need to convert to a digital mode and in the process we have to consider the cyber security. The Sri Lanka Army has been working on dealing with cyber security and they have to also deal with cyber-attacks. Cyber war is different because it isn’t the shape of the warrior that counts, but his ability to hack and type fast. Digital terrorism is where we are heading for and that is far worse than what anybody could believe.
(IESL Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture will be held on September 7 at the IESL Auditorium from 5.30pm onwards)
Ray Wijewardene has been one of the greatest inventors Sri Lanka ever had. How could we draw inspiration from his work?
He was a great inventor and an innovator. What he shows is that individuals can create. That one person can change the world. We started WSO2 to beat Microsoft and Oracle. Ray did many things without any Government support and he got things done. He was involved with more hardware, but if we convert it to software and the fact that the global market is within reach, if we had a Ray now in software we could have reached a pinnacle. The reason we don’t have more Rays is because we have a colonial mind-set stating that we are second class in the world and a cultural mind-set that it’s good enough to do a little and do a Government job. Our mind-set is that the ultimate job is one that would give you a pension.
While reading through your bio, I also found out that you work as an Uber driver as well. Any particular reason for that?
In Sri Lanka people have a mind-set that if you are a driver you are second class. In the US if you are a grad student and if you want to do a second job you could always be an Uber driver or work in a shop. But odd jobs in Sri Lanka are for odd people. That’s a very bad cultural mind-set. Here people don’t look at the person who carries your grocery bags to the car or who serves you at the restaurant. So I basically wanted to break the stereotype. I hear all kinds of interesting conversations because people usually don’t recognize the driver.
"The good thing is that Sri Lanka isn’t a digitally connected country unlike the US. If you hack in to the US, you can basically shut it down"
What are the future products that are in line?
We are working on a new programming language called ‘Ballerina’. Technology which is moving fast and we are geared to evolve with it.
Pic by Kithsiri De Mel